Who’s Behind the “Lawlessness”?
Two months after the three-day transport strike,
which spread uncontrolled panic among Salvadorans,
speculations about who was behind it
raise more questions than answers.
Responsibility for the three-day bus strike that paralyzed El Salvador in early September was jointly claimed by the Mara Salvatrucha and La Pandilla 18 in a written statement in which they asked President Mauricio Funes to veto the “Law for the Proscription of Gangs, Gang Associations and Organizations of a Criminal Nature” approved some days earlier.
[Mara Salvatrucha; also known as MS and MS13, is a transnational urban criminal gang, ethnically Central American in composition, that originated in Los Angeles and has spread to other parts of the US, Canada, Mexico and Central America. It has no single leader and its more than 70,000 members are organized in cells. Pandilla 18 is another criminal youth gang active in El Salvador with a long history of gang war with MS13 for control of the streets, made famous by a recent documentary La Vida Loca.]
Did they act alone?Some 80% of the country’s bus routes participated in the strike and 30% of the businesses in the industrial city of Soyapango closed down, some because employees didn’t report for work and others for security reasons. Meanwhile, the Army and the Order Maintenance Unit (UMO) were out patrolling the streets.
Teachers in the San Martín district of San Salvador said parents came to pick up their children from school, fearing they would be assaulted on the streets. At the same time gang-connected inmates in 9 out of 21 of the country’s prisons declared a state of rebellion. There were many reasons to believe the gangs were only fronting the strike. On the morning of Tuesday, September 7, the first day of the strike, it became apparent that a massive campaign to destabilize the government was taking place. The media, websites and e-mail chain letters spread a totally unfounded wave of rumors about acts of violence… By midday, only one such act was confirmed: the burning of a bus in Ilopango. In fact homicides—averaging thirteen a day in previous months—dropped to just one on the first day of the strike and to less than five for the three-day period. September ended with an average of seven a day, half those usually reported.
Despite all the advantagesThis year has been marked by repeated attacks on the Funes government by the ARENA party, the once-powerful National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP) and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Attributing lawlessness in the country to it is at the heart of their attacks, and is an incessant claim. On the first anniversary of President Funes’ inauguration this campaign intensified with slogans posted on billboards in red and white—the colors of the FMLN governing party—declaring: “FMLN Government, incompetent.”
ARENA, ANEP and the Chamber of Commerce use and understand “lawlessness” or “ungovernability” to mean a government that cannot “rule” El Salvador because it doesn’t exclusively benefit them. And this, despite the fact that the current government has dedicated more than a year to guaranteeing the security of big businesses, drawing back from the proposed review of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), ignoring tax reform measures that would modify the existing regressive tax reform structure, supporting transnational telephone companies when the Legislative Assembly abolished their illegal charges, and endorsing the future privatization of Port Cutuco, the hydroelectric dams, the airport and road networks. On the political front, Mauricio Funes has said that he won’t touch the unpopular Amnesty Law; has turned his back on the FMLN legislative bench by vetoing a reform that would remove the Right’s absolute control of the National Registry of Natural Persons (the institution responsible for issuing and monitoring identity documents, converted by the ARENA governments into a machine for electoral fraud); and has left hundreds of ARENA and PCN activists in charge of autonomous ministries and institutions. In foreign policy, the Funes government has followed US interests, steering clear of anything that smacks of Venezuela or ALBA and leading the international campaign to recognize the illegitimate government of Pepe Lobo in Honduras.
It seems all this isn’t enough for the Salvadoran Right, however. Gloria Salguero Gross, an ARENA founder, former Legislative Assembly president and former commissioner for governance (2004-2009), warned in an interview with La Prensa Gráfica that “we’re ready to defend our homeland” if the government of El Salvador takes decisions like those that led to the coup in Honduras, such as raising the minimum wage by 60%, joining ALBA or using mechanisms such as referendums for people to decide about important issues. Salguero repeated that position at a conference that Honduran coup leader, Roberto Micheletti, organized in San Salvador in June for rightwing businesspeople and politicians.
The third strike?Threats and rumors of curfews or transport stoppages attributed to gangs have been as constant as the Right’s discourse about ungovernability and have been accompanied by corresponding ups and downs. The transport strike in September was the third time in the last fifteen months that the capital city was paralyzed by a curfew, real or fictitious, allegedly declared by the gangs. The first occurred just a week after Mauricio Funes’ inauguration. Although never proven, and described as “a political tactic” organized by vendors in the center of San Salvador, the incentive for these incidents was to create a climate of terror that left the streets of the capital practically empty.
Four months later another alleged curfew closed down schools and businesses and suspended urban transport, but the September 7 stoppage has been the biggest yet. It has left a political echo that, accidentally or deliberately, resounds well with the stepped up speeches about lawlessness.
Do the drug barrels explain it?The strike had a spectacular precursor. Four days before, on September 3, the National Police (PNC) unearthed two barrels containing a total of US$10.2 million in a hacienda in the department of La Paz. Two days after the strike was over a third barrel was found in the department of La Libertad containing another US$4.2 million.
According to the media, investigations indicate that the money belonged to drug traffickers from a Central American network jointly run by Guatemalan and Salvadoran bands. Commissioner Howard Cotto, the PNC’s deputy director of investigations, stated that the investigation is in its preliminary phase and has a long way to go. No further information was forthcoming.
Whatever the case may be, this discovery of drugbarrels just days before the transport strike was evidently a major blow to organized crime and it wouldn’t be surprising if they reacted against Funes’ government as a consequence since their interests coincide with those of ARENA and Salvadoran and transnational big business on lawlessness.
Police connections?National Police Inspector General Zaira Navas has worked hard to rid the institution of ties to organized crime. In September and October, her office, which is responsible for internally processing disciplinary matters and illegal acts committed by members of the police force, recorded 191 open cases. These included 20 cases of former armed force members who, in the same week as the strike, conducted a media campaign claiming they were being politically persecuted for having belonged to the military during the armed conflict. The main figures of this campaign appear to be Douglas García Funes, head of the Transnational Anti-gang Center (CAT), and former deputy police chief, Pedro González. The two are accused of having links to the drug trafficking network allegedly led by Natividad Luna Pereira. According to a DEA informant, Commissioner García Funes used his position to provide security for drug shipments passing through El Salvador and ensure that other police delegations didn’t interfere with them.
Accusations like this aren’t new. In 2009, former National Police Director Ricardo Meneses (2003-2005) was forced to resign from his post as deputy chief of security in the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington on suspicion of having connections with Luna Pereira and a leader of Pandilla 18.
Plan Chameleon?Equally astonishing was the information La Prensa Gráfica revealed in 2009 about “Plan Chameleon,” an undercover operation by the Narcotics Division (DAN) to investigate possible links between certain police stations and drug traffickers during the previous two years. All the leading agents in El Tamarindo police station in the department of La Unión, which borders Honduras on the east and the Gulf of Fonseca and Pacific Ocean on the south, were removed for the operation and substituted by DAN agents.
A lot of information linking different police stations with drug trafficking was obtained during the operation but it had to be suspended after it was leaked that El Tamarindo station was being run by the DAN. Events led to two homicides that remain unpunished. Plan Chameleon was the responsibility of two DAN agents: José Contreras Mejía, known as “Tank,” and Darwin Serrano Lemus, known as “Makey.” Both have been accused by the Attorney General’s Office of being accomplices of Los Perrones, a criminal organization allegedly linked to drug trafficking, as well as trafficking in people and other gang crimes.
Legislators too? In a 2009 interview, the late Leonel Gómez Vides, investigator and specialist in the field of organized crime, said that Los Perrones were managing more than 100 trailers in the largest transport company in Central America, carrying cargo from Panama up to the Guatemala-Mexico border. The most valuable cargo went from a port to a warehouse to a port. An abundance of reasons underpin the investigations by the Inspector General’s Office to clean up the police, so many that they make the alleged “political persecution” claimed by García Funes and co. sound ridiculous. Nonetheless, the legislative benches of ARENA, the National Conciliation Party (PCN), the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) and the Christian Democrat Party (PDC) sided with those being investigated. Five days after the charge and one day after the end of the strike, they approved the creation of a special commission to investigate General Inspector Zaira Navas, who has the support of the director of the National Police, the minister of justice and public safety and President Funes himself.
Does money laundering explain it?According to Gómez Vides, money laundering rather than the sale of drugs is organized crime’s primary activity in El Salvador. “Money laundering is the principal business, the one where real profits are made. It’s handled by more or less the same groups, just different people than those guarding or loading and unloading cocaine. Laundering has to be done by bankers or people linked to finance... The DEA has stated publicly and it is published that 565 tons of cocaine are moved each year [more today] but there’s another cargo that passes through Central America, and that’s money.”
He adds that “In the United States, Canada, or wherever they sell cocaine, the sale generates an enormous amount of paper money, because cocaine isn’t bought with checks or credit cards, people pay in cash. If 565 tons of cocaine go up, the equivalent amount of money comes down. The money generated from the sale of this enormous quantity of cocaine represents a huge amount of cash that has to be brought into these countries. This massive volume of cash has to be deposited in a bank as a financial maneuver to convert it into a letter of credit or a bank account so it can be invested. This is laundering. And laundering is bigger than the cocaine business for people in this area.”
El Salvador is preferable to Mexico for laundering dollars thanks to dollarization, our financial legislation and because so many bribes and payments have to be made in Mexico that what’s left for the person running the operation makes it an unattractive proposition.
The Mexican Zetas?The fact that Salvadoran organized crime bands are pieces in the international organized crime puzzle doesn’t mean that the “big boys” don’t operate in El Salvador. Starting in late 2009, there was talk that the Mexican Zetas cartel, a relatively new piece in the puzzle, was present in El Salvador. This cartel was originally formed from a group of soldiers who deserted the Mexican Army’s Special Forces Air Mobile Group (GAFE), Special Forces Amphibious Group (GANFE) and Parachute Rifle Brigade (BFP), all of them military divisions created in 1994 to deal with the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas. They were the only elite groups trained by the CIA, by military assessment commandos from Sayeret Matkal (Israeli Special Forces) and the French National Gendarmerie Intervention Group (GIGN). As a result their training included handling sophisticated weapons and expertise in counterinsurgency work. According to Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, at least 40 former GAFE members joined the Gulf cartel in 1999. An indeterminate number of former Guatemalan kaibiles (special commando troops) also joined the Zetas, which became autonomous of the Gulf cartel in 2008, although the separation was only formalized in March of this year.
The first reference to a relationship between the Zetas and El Salvador appeared in El Diario de Hoy at the end of 2009 in a report about members of the Mara Salvatrucha joining military exercises carried out by the Mexican group. Four months later, President Mauricio Funes admitted: “The Zetas have entered Salvadoran territory to make a field inspection and then to begin operating and establish connections with Salvadorans.”
How far have the gangs come?At the time of the Mano Duro (Hard Hand) and Super Mano Duro governmental operations (2004-2005) , human rights organizations warned that such repressive measures would cause a counter reaction, leading young gang members to become more sophisticated and join more professional structures in order to survive the persecution. But neither public opinion nor the authorities were open to heeding that prediction at the time. Today, we can see that it has become a real trend.
In to a study conducted by Jeanette Aguilar and Marlon Carranza in 2008, 14% of Salvadoran gang members admitted to having relationships with organized crime bands, though most of them said they did so as individuals, not as a group decision. They claimed they collaborate with these gangs in two main activities—as hired guns (26.8%) and in arms trafficking (20.7%). They said they were not involved in regional drug trafficking, which, according to regional and US authorities, is the main motivation behind the regional anti-gang strategies guided and financed by the United States.
Was it the transport entrepreneurs?One other group was interested in the September strike, in addition to ARENA, ANEP, organized crime and the various gangs: the bus entrepreneurs who have been threatening to bring their industry to a standstill since the FMLN won the elections.
Their threats are based on two arguments, which they have reiterated again and again. The first is their protest against the attacks on bus drivers and conductors by different gangs and organized crime groups asking for “protection money.” The second is their demand that the central government maintain and guarantee their subsidies.
They made their first threat in April 2009, a month after the presidential elections. The second came in May of this year, when the Association of Autobus Entrepreneurs (AEAS) called a strike that only paralyzed about 3% of the sector, an irrelevant figure compared with the 80% effectiveness of the September strike, when the carriers got “their strike” without all the political costs of being responsible for leaving most of the population on foot.
Whether through lack of interest or lack of ability, no previous government has ever seriously worked at improving the chaotic public transport service. When faced with any attempt to plan it better, the carriers have always managed to twist the government’s arm with threats of protests and stoppages. Possibly their lack of cohesion during Funes’ government is due to the firmness of the deputy transport minister, whose arm they’ve not been fully able to twist.
Beyond this sector’s economic demands are their obvious political alliances with the forces of the Right. Catalino Miranda, head of FECOATRANS, another bus owners’ association, is a former ARENA political leader and now heads a new rightwing party in formation called the Popular Party, together with Orlando Arévalo, a legislator expelled from the PCN in 2009. AEAS president Genaro Ramírez is a Legislative Assembly adviser for PCN representative Elizardo Lovo. Some of the bus owners, especially the leaders, form part of the rightwing bloc that has systematically trumpeted about ungovernability in El Salvador.
President Funes criticized the transport associations for their performance during the September strike. “Some of them wanted to take advantage of the situation and negotiate economic demands but we’re not going to let that happen. Some of them even said they should be given a bonus, an incentive, or that now is a good time to approve a fare increase.”
FMLN legislator Damián Alegría wrote in his blog: “We knew that on Saturday September 11 the carriers went to the offices of the PCN, the dictator’s old party, now allied to ARENA, to get paid for the three days they were on strike. Some people tried to report this to the rightwing media but they simply ignored it.”
US interests?Yet another political event took place during the September strike whose outcome, like all the others, it speeded up: President Funes was negotiating to get US government support for the fight against delinquency and crime.
On the first day of the strike the President was in Los Angeles meeting with that city’s mayor, Antonio Villarraigosa. Three days later, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that “Mexico now has the capacity and is using it”—with US assistance—to combat the cartels but that she is more concerned about the “small” Central American and Caribbean countries “that don’t have that capacity.” Following a meeting with the Salvadoran President in late September, Clinton reaffirmed the US commitment to assist El Salvador with security and economic development and issued instructions for the creation of a working group on these topics.
Although Funes seems satisfied with this “collaboration,” many Salvadorans view it with suspicion. They refer to the results and balance sheets of the Mérida initiative, in place since 2008 and covering Mexico and Central America, although some of the Central American countries have complained that it’s almost exclusively directed at Mexico.
The organizations that view the Mérida plan with skepticism argue that it’s a carbon copy of Plan Colombia, adapted to other geographical and temporal circumstances: aid for security and very little for development. The project has been criticized for being undercover counterinsurgency aid to complement US political and economic efforts to counter advances in political projects touting the construction of 21st-century socialism; and for not achieving its explicit goal of fighting drug trafficking and organized crime.
Obviously drug trafficking can only be halted by freezing its largest market: the United States. Of the 75,000 weapons seized by the Mexican government in operations against drug trafficking and organized crime, 80% came from the United States.
Mexican researcher Teresa Fernández concludes: “The Mérida Initiative is part of US national security, which, more than fighting drug trafficking, is aimed at expanding its military domain and hegemony in Latin America, which it feels to be threatened by the advance of the progressive forces in South America.” The September strike virtually gave the green light to extending the initiative into El Salvador.
Are the gangs just a front?All these interwoven beneficiaries of the September strike make it difficult to discover who its true authors were. Gang members were obviously involved, as their statement proves. But it is equally obvious that the gangs represent a broad and varied spectrum of interests. Ten social organizations released a statement at the time saying: “It’s another example that those with the most to lose in this system end up fronting for the most powerful ones, who take advantage without putting their political credibility at stake.”
On the last day of the strike, proclaiming that “we will not be intimidated,” President Funes endorsed the law proscribing gangs that the statement by Mara Salvatrucha and Pandilla 18 called the root cause of the strike in the first place. The law is administrative in character and facilitates, above all, the investigation and neutralizing of gang members’ financial links through measures designed mainly to control their assets. It regulates “the extinction of title, domain, possession or tenancy of goods, cash, rights, earnings and benefits acquired through criminal activity.” Although the law declares gangs and maras to be illegal, mentioning the four largest in the country by name, as well as the Sombra Negra death squad, it contains little new compared to the existing legislation on racketeering and organized crime. Unlike the 2003 anti-gang law, which the Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a year later, the new law has no guidelines promoting the raids and mass arrests of young people that were characteristic of the 2003-2006 period.
The real effects of the new legislation depend on a proposed reform of Article 345 of the Penal Code, related to unlawful associations, which was mentioned in the recently approved Proscription Law. This modification would carry penal implications beyond administrative measures.
Possibly for this reason, or through poor and confusing information circulating about the law even among the authorities themselves, the Law for Proscription of Gangs has still not been implemented over a month after it entered into force, So far it has been more effective in appealing to public opinion than in prohibiting these groups.
More questions than answersMore than two months after the transport strike, which spread uncontrolled panic among the Salvadoran population, there are still more questions than answers. Commissioner Cotto explains that there are several areas of investigation: “Who are the possible organizers; who determined the distribution of the pamphlets; who went round and told the merchants and carriers one by one not to move; who was responsible for the specific acts of violence that took place...”
Clearly a number of groups share an interest in demostrating the ARENA propaganda that the FMLN government is incompetent. To what extent do they reach agreements? To what extent do they trust in the collaboration or approval of other sectors? Or to what extent was all that happened pure coincidence? It’s still hard to be sure.
Amanda Mayen is a sociologist specializing in social violence.